Royal Salute Whisky Clarence House Chase | Grade 1 | 2m 1f | ITV4/RUK
An eighth Grade 1 win and a history-making hat-trick of Clarence House victories could be beckoning for Un De Sceaux, the star chaser who landed this prize in 2016 and again a year ago when it was staged at Cheltenham.
A 25-length winner of the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase at Cork on his reappearance last month, the Willie Mullins-trained ten-year-old has done his owners, the O'Connell family from County Cork, and their enthusiastic band of travelling supporters proud in recent seasons.
And part-owner Colm O'Connell is looking forward to Un De Sceaux's bid for further glory. He said: "Cheltenham is Cheltenham and it's a fantastic festival, but from the start of the season trying to win the Clarence House for the third time has been our main target. No horse has managed it before.
"He looks to have plenty in hand over his rivals but small-field races can be very tactical, so we're taking nothing for granted."
Trainer Willie Mullins reports his crack chaser in "fine form" for Saturday's race in which Paul Townend will be partnering Un De Sceaux for only the second time, with Ruby Walsh still sidelined.
Townend was on board when Saturday's odds-on favourite was second to Sprinter Sacre in the bet365 Celebration Chase at Sandown in 2016.
Pros A seven-time Grade 1 winner. Proven over the course and goes well on soft. By some way the best horse in the race
Cons Hard to find any. A clear round should be enough.
Punters who have taken fancy prices about Brain Power are sitting pretty now that the field has cut up to five and he is a top-priced 11-4, from 12-1 and bigger.
However, while he has always been well regarded and was sent off at only 13-2 for last year's Champion Hurdle, he was beaten when falling at the last at Sandown last time and there is no escaping the magnitude of the task he faces if Un De Sceaux runs to his best. Even his biggest fan, owner Michael Buckley, has called for a reality check.
Buckley said: "There's been far too much noise about Brain Power. He's an exciting horse, but he's won one novice chase and is taking on a horse who has won seven Grade 1s.
"He's on a hiding to nothing. I can't believe anyone genuinely thinks he'll beat Un De Sceaux."
Buckley, who was happy to go along with Nicky Henderson's suggestion of putting up Nico de Boinville for the first time, added: "Brain Power was a good hurdler, but he hasn't done it at the highest level. He may well have been second in the Irish Champion Hurdle if he had jumped the last well, but that would have been his best form over hurdles.
"I think Nicky summed it up very well earlier this week when he said he doesn't have any illusions about beating Un De Sceaux. He'd just like to have the horse run in a race where he hopefully doesn't have to make the running.
"If he were to win it would be amazing, but it's a fun thing to have a go at and so long as he settles and has a happy time, what will be will be."
Pros An exciting prospect with plenty of untapped talent over fences
Cons Inexperienced, and needs to step up significantly if Un De Sceaux is on his 'A' game
Kylemore Lough has his second start for Harry Fry, having been pulled up when favourite to make a winning start for the stable in Cheltenham’s BetVictor Gold Cup in November.
The nine-year-old won a Grade 1 novice chase at Fairyhouse in March 2016 but that was over 2m4f and this is his first try at a shorter trip for nearly two years.
Fry remains confident, though. He said: “Obviously the big question is the trip, but It’s not that steep a drop really.
“To be honest, the last day he jumped the opening fences so fast he looked like a two-miler. He absolutely tanked through the first part of the race and was really quick and slick."
Fry added in his Betway blog: "We thought that this race could be a bit cut up and it’s a very valuable prize.
"There’s no pressure on us so we thought we’d take our chance and build from here for the rest of the season. He has won over this distance, albeit handicapping, and although we’d like to win we’re not expecting to.
"Brain Power is a novice without too much experience over fences so I think Un De Sceaux is the one to beat – if he turns up in his best form then it’s hard to see why he wouldn’t win."
San Benedeto completed a four-timer with a narrow success in Aintree’s Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase last April but was comfortably beaten by Altior later the same month and has yet to register a win this season, coming closest when second to stablemate Politologue in Exeter’s Haldon Gold Cup.
Eight of his nine career wins have come in the second half of the season and trainer Paul Nicholls is hoping for signs of improvement after he failed to get competitive in the Tingle Creek on his last start, when he was ridden by Nick Scholfield, who retains the ride.
Harry Derham, assistant to Nicholls, said: "He always runs his race. There’s loads of prize-money on offer, and he likes Ascot. Hopefully he’ll run well."
Speredek was pulled up on his first two chase starts but has won his last four for trainer Nigel Hawke by a combined 36 lengths, the latest at Sandown this month. But this is his first foray outside handicap company.
"We make the running with him because he is a relentless galloper but if something wants to go quicker than us, so be it," Hawke said.
"We're probably coming up against the one horse [Un De Sceaux] who has genuine pace so we'll see what happens. If we don't try, we won't know."